“God, grant me the clarity to recognise what I can control and what I cannot, and the imagination to walk through my own warped storylines like a badass.” – me, right now.
“Is this hell, Critter?” I groan to my imaginary raccoon. I am sitting up in bed with the light on. It is 1:00 am and my two-year-old is cough-howling in the next room.
I lay George RR Martin’s A Clash of Kings face down on my bed. In the back of my mind, I can hear the spine silently straining and feel the glue threatening to let go. I picture the pages of this well-loved tome creaking toward the same heart-rending explosion that befell my worn-out copy of Fall on Your Knees by Ann-Marie MacDonald.
My heart sinks.
“Please… hang on!” I whisper to the book.
I paw frantically through tangled layers of blanket to find my bookmark while my sick baby chokes and wails next door.
Jesus Christ, woman, GO! A clear-eyed version of me shouts to myself.
“Fine!” I say out loud. I rush around the end of my bed, but take the corner too fast and whack my thigh against the edge of the frame. That’s gonna leave a bruise.
“Ow! Fuck!” I hiss.
I stumble the few steps into the hall, then wrench my little one’s door open and drop to my knees at her bedside.
“Shhh, shhh, sweetheart. Mommy’s here. Shhhh, shhh… come here, just breathe, Baby,” I mutter as I scoop her up.
My little lovey buries her face into my chest and hacks and howls. It takes two or three minutes before the obstructive goop works itself free in her airway. When she can finally breathe, she sucks in a lungful of air and pushes it back out as a piteous wail.
Jesus Christ, this is awful, I think.
A few days ago, I’d sat in the doctor’s office with my little pestilence culture on my knee describing these scary plugged-chest episodes.
“I know it sounds like she’s dying,” the doctor had said, “but really, she’s fine. It’s just a nasty bug. It will take at least a week to work itself out. Bring her back if she’s not starting to get better within two weeks.”
What if I can’t make it two weeks? I had wondered.
My husband had just left on a work trip. I was getting tag-teamed by my most dreaded foes with no backup. If I had had a nickel, I wouldn’t have risked it on my odds of victory.
I was struggling as a solo-parent, night nurse, and freelance professional. The past three days had been excruciating: my oldest daughter had overwhelmed me with a constant flurry of infuriating arguments, while with my youngest (the human petri dish) bawled and clawed at me 24/7, begging me to let her crawl up underneath my shirt.
I had a deadline tonight. The client had emailed three times today to touch base and add new thoughts to her project. I was straining for every word on her piece, with my brain running on the fumes of four hours of sleep in the last two nights.
It felt like infant care all over again. It felt like hell.
Back in the baby’s bedroom, I stand beneath the dim blue stars projected by her night light and hold her tiny hot head against my skin. I rock for her comfort, and for mine.
What the fuck am I going to do? I wonder.
“Whatever needs doing,” comes a whisper from my shoulder. “You’re the mom. Just do what needs doing.”
It’s Critter. She has climbed up next to my ear and is gazing at the top of my little one’s head with melting kindness.
“She’s having a rough time,” Critter says, and strokes the baby’s soft hair exactly the way I do.
“She’s SO miserable,” I whisper. “I need to make her feel better. I need BOTH of us to feel better!”
Critter turns her soft green eyes to me. She touches my cheek with her delicate black fingers and breathes deep.
“I know,” she says, “But you can’t. You can’t control this. It sucks. But she is okay. And so are you. You just gotta ride it out.”
A tear swells in the corner of my eye.
“I don’t think I can, Critter,” I whisper.
“One thing at a time,” she answers. “Let’s start with some Tylenol. I think she’s due for another dose.”
I check my watch, and as usual, Critter is right. The last dose was at eight o’clock. Maybe another mouthful will give my baby’s battleground body some relief.
I cuddle my hairless gorilla child under my chin and Critter rides effortlessly on my shoulder as we descend the dark stairway.
The baby flinches when I click on the hood light above the stove. Then she sits up eagerly when I grab the familiar bottle of ache-relieving suspension.
My left arm starts to go numb with her small weight on my elbow. I manage to shake the bottle and fill the syringe mostly one-handed, without dropping anything or anyone. The little one drinks her dose and sighs. At least this is one task that doesn’t give her pain.
Next, I dip a Q-tip into a mix of antacid and anti-histamine and dab it on the sores lining her lips and mouth. For a “harmless virus”, this bug has been vicious.
Then, I stand in the dark kitchen and cuddle and sway my sick girl until her breath starts to soften and slow.
I carry her back up the stairs and lay her gently in her bed. I curl up next to her in the converted crib (yeah, I’m that short) and listen to her suck her thumb and whimper until she falls asleep.
I carefully peel myself out of the bed and slip the door closed behind me. As I crawl up onto my own bed, I find my freaking bookmark. I slide it between the ruffled pages of my abused paperback, and press hard on the covers as if this will straighten out the kinks and waves. I put the book on my dresser and stare at it.
“Aren’t you going to bed?” asks Critter. I had forgotten she was there. She hops down off my shoulder and arranges some folds of mussed-up blanket into a nest. Then, she curls her grey-brown body into it, sighs contentedly, and looks up at me expectantly.
“God, I wish I could just shut down and go to sleep right now,” I say. “I know I need to. I just can’t. My brain is fried.”
Critter considers me.
“I know this isn’t really hell,” I continue. “It might be if the baby was seriously ill. Or if my husband wasn’t coming back.” I start thinking of the people I know who have been through these trials, and worse.
And then I think of my friends who have infants and are living this kind of constant, gut-wrenching demand month after month.
Then I think of my loved ones who have had recent devastations, and ones whose nights of heartache and bleary-eyed torment have lasted years.
“This is nothing,” I say. “But it feels like doom. I’m fucking useless.” My heart goes thud-a-thud in my throat, and I can hear myself screaming in the back of my mind. I am too strung out to cry. I just stare, and rub my burning eyes, and feel the pressure building behind them.
“What do you need?” Critter asks.
“I don’t know!” I cry. “God, I wish I knew. So many people have offered to help. I just can’t figure out how. The baby is stuck to me like an octopus. It’s not like I can just peel her off and plop her on someone’s lap and go to the spa. By the time I finished explaining about the small handful of things she can kind of eat right now, and the popsicles, and the meds, and the salt-water swish, and the Q-tips and the…”
Critter puts her paw up to stop me.
“I get it,” she says. “Good lord, that’s enough.”
My eyes brim with water.
“I keep thinking,” I say, “about how if someone asked me for advice, I would tell them to make a plan… figure out what you need, and just ask for it… but I can’t. I can’t see past the end of my nose. I have no idea what I need. I need sleep, and that can’t happen right now.”
Critter listens patiently.
Her quiet makes me want to scream. I am bracing myself for a splatter of judgement from her mouth… she’s going to tell me I’m being dramatic. I just know it.
Critter just keeps looking at me, her moss-coloured irises reflecting the lamplight like warm little torches in her soft black mask.
My hands ball into fists.
“Stop looking at me like that!” I shout. “I know I’m being ridiculous. I know it, okay?!? I can’t stop! I can’t! I can’t make it stop! I’m ridiculous! I can’t!!” My cries dissolve into sobs, and I cover my face with my hands.
I feel movement on the bed, and then a gentle touch strokes my back.
“Shhh… it’s okay. I’m here,” Critter soothes. “It’s okay. You’re okay. We’re going to figure this out.”
I lift my face and wipe my eyes with the back of my wrist.
“Huh-how?” I hiccough.
Critter tilts her head, thinking.
“Bring on the drama,” she says.
“Huh?” I ask.
“If it feels like drama to you, let’s go with it,” she explains. “We’ll save your life with role play. Pretend that you are going through epic hell – like a horror movie. And then become the badass heroine who survives.”
I let this thought sink in. I think I like it.
“Like Michonne, on The Walking Dead?” I ask.
“Exactly,” she says.
That new frame changes the whole picture.
Suddenly, I don’t give a shit anymore about how other people would handle this mess. The dead crust of shame flakes off my skull, and the shiny pink flesh beneath is grim and determined.
I let myself dive into the reality of it – the hideous way it feels, the non-negotiable things my girls need from me, the degree to which I am handicapped right now, and the tasks I can honestly let go.
My scenario starts to come clear. I know what I need to do.
I’m going to make myself get up and take the big girl to school tomorrow. But I’m not even going to try to get dressed.
I’m going to finish this piece of copywriting work, and then help my client find another writer – someone who has the time and energy to maintain the intensity her project requires.
And forget dragging the kids through the grocery store. I’m ordering that shit online.
And I’m ordering in our dinner for the next couple of days. I don’t care if it has to go on my Visa. I’ll figure that out when things are better.
Fuck it. Let’s do this.
I’m going to get it done like my favourite dreadlocked ninja.
Here’s why Michonne is my favourite character on TWD; it’s not just because she works a katana like a Cuisinart and is as cool and inevitable as the Columbia River in the face of fear.
I love Michonne because she always dives into the mess, rather than running away.
She neutralised the zombie corpses of the men who took everything from her and used them to walk safely among the dead. That’s not just fucking brilliant, it’s wisdom and courage and clear-eyed honesty. This fictional woman represents unassailable emotional strength, right down to her made-up marrow.
Michonne can admit when things are shit. She can also admit when she’s been too hard on the world, and pry herself back open.
And she never hesitates when the way out of a jam is to plunge your fist straight into its rotting middle. She slimes herself with gore when it gets her where she needs to go. And she gets there. Every time.
I can’t help but wonder if Michonne has a guardian raccoon, too. She certainly finds many interesting uses for rotting meat.
“Alright, Critter,” I say. “I’m going to be a badass. I’ll get through this fortnight of hell. Even if it’s not pretty, I’ll still be standing when the sun comes up. Or when the cavalry shows up in the motorhome. Or whatever.”
Critter stands up and hugs me around my neck.
“Atta girl,” she whispers. Then she turns, and with a wink at me over her shoulder, my imaginary raccoon hops off my bed and trots out of the room.
Here’s what Critter left me with this week, and which we hope will help you, too:
- Just do what needs doing.
- What do you need?
- We’re going to figure this out.
- Bring on the drama.
- Become the badass who survives.
And I’d like to add – Get your food delivered. Critter says she’d be happy to bring you a care package, but I promise, you won’t want what’s inside a dumpster-diving rodent’s Tupperware. You can take Critter’s advice, but not her catering.